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Eric Thames comes home

A look at what the Brewers breakout force was like in the minors

Milwaukee Brewers v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

From the Minor League Ball mailbag:

“Is Eric Thames for real? What kind of prospect was he?”—-Paul from Chicago.

Through 14 games in 2017, Eric Thames of the Milwaukee Brewers is hitting .408/.500/.959 with six doubles, seven homers, eight walks, and 11 strikeouts in 49 at-bats. He is tied with Freddie Freeman of the Braves for the MLB lead in fWAR at 1.4 and is part of a three-way tie for the lead in home runs. He leads MLB in slugging percentage and is second in wRC+.

Put simply, he’s been a devastating hitter so far, certainly justifying the three year, $16,500,000 contract the Brewers gave him after he spent three seasons in Korea.

Paul asks a two-part question.

Is he for real? In my opinion, yes. He’s not going to hit .400 all year of course, but I expect he’ll continue to be successful.

What kind of prospect was he?

Thames appeared in three editions of the Baseball Prospect Book. Here are the three comments about him, not edited in any way.

2009: Pepperdine outfielder Eric Thames had a breakthrough season in 2008: note his massively improved power production and strike zone judgment compared to ’07. Scouts believed his improvement was for real, and in the weeks before the draft he was getting mentioned as a possible late first round pick. Alas, Thames tore a quad muscle and had to have surgery in late May, costing him at least four rounds in the draft and a lot of money. He signed as a seventh rounder, went through rehab and is expected to make his pro debut in ’09. Thames is strong, should hit for power, and has slightly above average speed. His other tools, particularly his throwing arm, are less impressive, but if he builds on the progress he made last year before the injury, his bat is enough to carry him. We need to see how he adapts to pro pitching, and if the injury has any lingering effects. Grade C+ with higher potential.

2010:Thames was a seventh round pick in the ’08 draft, out of Pepperdine. He got some buzz as a potential first round pick at one point, but a torn quad muscle ended his college season early and prevented him from making his pro debut until 2009. He hit very well in the Florida State League, posting a +28 percent OPS, however more problems with his quad and hip limited him to just 52 games. When healthy, Thames is a pure hitter who can drive the ball to all fields. A lot of scouts really like the bat, but they also worry that his health problems cut down on his speed and defensive ability and could impact his hitting too. I like Thames intuitively, and there’s little wrong with the numbers, granted the limitations of sample size. If he can stay away from the doctors he could be a very good hitter. Grade C+.

2011: After struggling with injuries in ’08 and ’09, Eric Thames was finally healthy in 2010 and had a fine campaign in the Eastern League, posting a +23 percent OPS and demonstrating very good power. His best tool is strength; he’s a chiseled guy. He took up yoga last year to add some flexibility to the package, and the result was very impressive. Scouting opinion about him differs. Some scouts see a guy with solid tools across the board, with a polished approach at the plate and power to all fields. Others see a guy who tries to pull the ball too often, and who can get tied up inside. Maybe it depends on what day you see him; the times I have seen him in person he’s looked very good, driving pitches to the opposite field without any problems and not looking pull-happy. His range and arm limit him to left field, but I’ve liked Thames since he was at Pepperdine, and don’t see any reason to change that now. He could put up huge (and possibly deceptive) numbers at Las Vegas. He is not related to Marcus Thames. Grade B-.

Indeed, Thames mashed at Las Vegas, hitting .352/.423/.610 in 53 games then moving up to the majors. As you likely know if you’ve been following his story, he bounced around from that point, having some moments of success for the Blue Jays and Mariners in 2011 and 2012, hitting .250/.296/.431 with 21 homers in 633 at-bats, but never quite getting established, then moving on to Korea where he turned into a superstar for three seasons.

Bottom line: his success this year, while exaggerated by the small sample size, is not truly out of context with his career. He was always an effective, even excellent hitter in the minors combining power with plate discipline. He flashed this with the Blue Jays and Mariners but a combination of injuries and roster circumstances prevented a true breakout. Those factors weren’t issues in Korea and they aren’t issues now.

Thames will cool off eventually but I expect he will be a significant run producer for the life of his contract. Kudos to the Brewers for looking at the big picture with this one.